Monday, September 7, 2015

My Hobby: Judging Awards

One of my hobbies is judging awards. Over the past few decades I've judged so many. During my time at the University of Colorado I was a judge of the Graduate Student Teaching Excellence Award, which allowed me to observe classes by stellar nominees in dance, studio art, theater, French (I always tried to be the first judge to sign up so I would get dibs on all the classes that looked most delicious). As a writer, I've judged the Golden Kite Award for fiction from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (winner my year: The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw), a manuscript-in-progress grant from the Utah Arts Council, and in 2005 (the crowning glory of my judging career), the National Book Award in the category of Literature for Young People (winner: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall). 

Often the judging involves a huge amount of poorly paid and all but unrecognized work. So why do I love it so much? I just do. I love the power to be somebody's fairy godmother, giving them this lovely boost to help them achieve their dreams. I love visiting all those classes, reading all those books - after all, I loved being a student, sitting in class with my notebook open in front of me, and I love reading books, and having an excuse - nay, an obligation - to read so many. I love turning on the discerning part of my brain. I love it all.

Right now I have one of my most demanding judging gigs ever. I'm serving a three-year elected term as a judge of the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award: an award given each year to a children's book published 20 years previously which did not win a major award at the time but is now judged worthy of winning one. Our committee is currently working on the award for 2018, which means that I'm immersed in reading heaps and heaps of books published in 1998.

To make the task more manageable (there is no way we can read every children's or young adult book published in the English language in 1998!), we start by generating a list of contenders from books that received at least some critical acclaim at the time, from end-of -year best books lists to starred reviews. This year we ended up with a list of 170 titles which we now need to cull to a list of 20 or so, which will then receive extremely close reading and discussion. Oh, and we have two months to do this round of culling. Two months! To procure those 170 titles from various libraries (I'm lucky that CU has an excellent children's literature collection, and the Boulder Public Library is also outstanding) - and then to read them - or at least skim them - or otherwise form a basis for judging whether any given title is a contender.

I get up in the morning and read Phoenix books. I read them through the day. I read them before I go to bed at night. I am living my life in 1998. People in these books call each other on land lines (not under that name, of course). They fly on airplanes in a pre-9-11 security climate. But in other ways their world is all too much like ours: in Jacqueline Woodson's If You Come Softly a high-achieving black kid, son of a prominent filmmaker father and novelist mother, is gunned down by police as he is out jogging in the park).

There are other ways I could be spending my time. Writing my own books. Preparing my courses for the fall. Revising and expanding three scholarly articles into publishable form. But I'm a woman obsessed. I just want to read one more Phoenix book - and then another - and then another - and then another.

After all, this IS my hobby.

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